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Women in Leadership: Kristina Callis Duffin

Every March, Women’s History Month is celebrated in the U.S. and around the world. This year, Women in Health, Medicine, and Science (WiHMS) will be running a series throughout the month that highlights women in leadership positions across the health sciences campus.

For this Women in Leadership feature for Women’s History Month 2024, we recognize the work, achievements, and leadership of Dr. Kristina Callis Duffin:

Kristina Callis Duffin, M.D., M.S., F.A.A.D.

Professor and Chair, Department of Dermatology

Kristina Callis Duffin smiles in a brightly lit room

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in health care? 

I owe my parents, my high school English teacher, and a biology professor in college for encouraging me to become a physician. I had considered many careers, from art to science, but a single writing assignment in college that invited encouragement from my biology professor helped me see the passion I have for medicine.  

As a third-year medical student on my internal medicine clerkship, I made a diagnosis of a previously unrecognized cause of subacute endocarditis that was ultimately published as a case report. My attendings encouraged me to go into internal medicine. After I matched into internal medicine, I did my last rotation in dermatology and realized that dermatology was my calling. I had to proceed in internal medicine, which was still fulfilling (I just took care of all of the patients who had skin problems). However, I did not thrive in internal medicine practice – some would say I had burnout before burnout was a thing – and it occurred to me I needed to pursue dermatology. I am grateful to Dr. Marta Petersen and Dr. Gerald Krueger for realizing my path in academic dermatology.

About ten years ago, Dr. John Zone, former Department Chair, started encouraging me to pursue leadership. Being a Chair wasn't necessarily on my bucket list, but I had a habit of jumping in and helping to solve problems. Ultimately, Dr. Zone did the most important thing that can be done for emerging leaders - he sponsored me. There are mentors, and there are sponsors. Mentors help, advise, and guide you; sponsors advocate by placing you in roles that will advance your career. I was fortunate to be able to share the job as co-chair with Dr. Zone for two years, which was a tremendous opportunity for an otherwise untested leader.

What are the challenges of being a leader in health care? 

The biggest challenge of being a leader in health sciences, especially in the role of Chair, is being accountable to so many stakeholders: our patients and their families, the community, our faculty, staff, and trainees; our peers in leadership (other chairs), and of course the executive leadership of the organization. There are so many complex and difficult problems facing leaders that it can be overwhelming. Dr. Good once said, "We have infinite work as leaders." It is sometimes hard to know which problems to tackle and when it is time to stop. 

What are the highlights of being a leader in health care? 

In the time I've been a Chair—which is now approaching six years—I've witnessed the Health Sciences leadership expand, mature, and become more effective. Leaders here are so supportive of each other. While COVID was a tremendous stressor, our leaders' response to this crisis – coming together and solving big problems – was a bright light in a dark time. As we came out of it, we had to solve new problems and recreate the way we worked. It's been an incredible journey as a leader, and I think this institution has done it better than most. 

I also have so much pride and gratitude being a part of the Department of Dermatology. The intersection of our missions – caring for our patients, educating our trainees, making new discoveries – and the success of our department and its people are my focus. I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with an amazing team of department leaders, established and new, in a culture that, while large (we have over 350 employees), still feels like family.  

Last, our network of women leaders has expanded and strengthened. Six years ago, there were far fewer women in senior executive leadership positions. This takes intention and vision, and I credit Dr. Good and many others for making this happen. I am grateful to be a part of that change.

Please share with us the best pieces of advice you have ever received.

My favorite piece of advice was, "You cannot run the code and do CPR at the same time." This was said to me by an anesthesia resident after observing me run my first code as a second-year internal medicine resident. At one point during the code, I got down on the floor to assist with placing leads. Afterward, he pulled me aside and told me that I couldn't effectively lead a code if I was not delegating tasks effectively. That quote has become my favorite metaphor for effective leadership. Delegating, mentoring, and sponsoring are essential, yet still challenging. It may be an even harder lesson for women. Women may be more prone to just buckling down and saying, "I'm going to tough it out and do it myself." Leaders must be able to ask for help, which reveals humility, strength, and vulnerability. It's a lesson I continue to learn and hopefully can pass on to others.